Georgia's Unspoiled Coast

DARIEN, Ga. —Coastal Georgia is wild, verdant and very not-Florida.

It is so not-Florida that 42-year-old Shane Ward, a naval mechanic from Jacksonville, prefers it to his own state for a little relaxation.

"Everything is still natural here," Ward said on a ferry to Georgia's Cumberland Island. "Florida is just too built up."

The110-mile coast is a rugged mix of living history and terrain so thickly green that it gets into your nostrils. It is home to wild horses, decaying mansions, landscapes shifting with the tides, sun-beaten fishermen, quiet islands, pristine beaches and twisting trees heavy with moss. Little of it has been spoiled by high-rise condos, water slides and swimming pools.

"You can be in some places so remote you won't see anyone all day," said Robby Bufkin, 41, manager of a kayak outfitter on Coastal Georgia's St. Simons Island. "All you need is a boat."

I didn't have a boat, but I did have a car and a few days to take in as much as I could, starting at the coast's northern edge and driving south down two-lane U.S.

Highway17 over a landscape of wooded back roads, stands promising okra and live crab, and a gas station marquee urging me to "Be Blessed."

The trip started on Tybee Island (about15 miles east of Savannah), which has little in common with the rest of Georgia's coast.

Rather than raw and wild, Tybee feels like an Alabama Gulf Coast town: wide, well-populated beaches, beer-drinking fishermen and gift shops packed with Southern tourist schlock.

"This is the best-kept secret around," said Steve Samples, 49, a regular from Calhoun, Ga., dangling a fishing pole in the Atlantic. "It's about hanging out and getting on Tybee time."

Lest you think the place is all about relaxation, last year Health magazine rated Tybee the nation's healthiest beach town.

Must be the hiking, biking, kayaking, camping and a 6 a.m. exercise beach boot camp.

The next day, I drove about 60 miles south to the town of South Newport, then headed east toward Harris Neck

National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,800-acre former military airfield that gators, snakes and thousands of birds now call home. After a couple of hours crisscrossing the trails, I can report that you haven't lived until you've been startled by a gator and a snake within15 minutes. While on foot. Alone.

A few miles down, I stopped for dinner at the Old School Diner, a restaurant that turns off many people at first glance but then wins them over. The wonder of this place begins in the parking lot, where dozens of rugs have been laid over the dirt to prevent mud puddles. Inside I shook hands with Chef Jerome, a hulking man with a drooping chef's hat, a salt-and-pepper beard and a gold necklace.

"We have a new family member," he hollered to his staff.

In the red-carpeted, windowless dining room of unmatching furniture — it could easily be Graceland's secret basement lair — there is no illusion about treading carefully with the fried-seafood menu. One of the most popular dishes is the Wheel Chair Platter (as in, "You'll be so full, you'll leave in a ...").

A few miles south was another piece of Southern eccentricity: the (supposedly) Smallest Church in America, on U.S. 17.

It is a nondenominational 10-by-15-foot affair. It hosts just one service per month but is always open.

The whirlwind day wound up in Darien, a shrimping town of 1,800 where boats named Blessed Assurance and Amazing Grace trawl for America's dinners. There is no shortage of outfitters ready to take you up the lovely Altamaha River, hugged by live oak and Spanish moss, or out toward the barrier islands of the Atlantic.

At my B&B, I met Florence Wildner, 73, who stays in Darien every fall while driving from her summer home on Long Island to her winter home in Sarasota, Fla. We both stayed at the Blue Heron Inn, a charming villa-style home that backs up to a salt marsh thick with tall, yellow grass.

"I love how wild it is here," Wildner said. "At sunset, that grass turns golden. I mean golden."

The next day I drove to St. Simons Island, home to golf courses and wealth but also fast food, Starbucks and supermarkets, which makes it one of the more conventional spots in coastal Georgia.

The highlight of my stay on St. Simons was getting away from the modernity and into a kayak. With a guide, I paddled for an hour through a calm salt marsh, across a wavy inlet and then to the tip of Sea Island, a strip of land also renowned for its wealth and golf courses.

The next day brought Jekyll Island , a few miles south of St. Simons but a world away, a former private getaway for the moneyed East Coast elite — the Macys, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and the like.

The state bought the island in 1947, but its legacy lives in splendid, turret-heavy mansions, perfect lawns, brick sidewalks and the $5 fee for driving onto the island.

Jekyll is decidedly more accessible these days. Most notably, the sprawling Jekyll Island Club, once a playground for the wealthy, is now a reasonably affordable hotel where you can almost hear the ghosts of linen-suited men smoking Cuban cigars in the halls. (The best deal can be found with a coupon at the visitor center just before you reach town.) The island offers classic tourist trappings such as a water park, golf and mini golf. It also has just a handful of restaurants, even fewer places to stay and little night life. But that's hardly grounds not to enjoy. One of my best afternoons on the Georgia coast was spent on Jekyll on two wheels, riding down the island's western shore, through the swamps of its southern tip, then along the long boardwalk on its eastern edge. As the sun dipped over my shoulder, I saw an image the Georgia coast served up again and again: the clouds turning pinker and pinker over an endless, swaying Atlantic.